URC Round 14 Review: Wins for Ulster, Munster, and Connacht; Leinster domination under question.

Ulster 19 Cardiff 17: Ulster win by a fingertip

Ulster won this match when a 78th. Minute hat-trick try for Cardiff winger Theo Cabango was ruled out for a fingertip knock on by Cardiff prop Rhys Carré who was yellow carded for his troubles. Cooney nailed the penalty to give Ulster the lead for only the second time in the match.

The match itself was an error strewn affair between two distinctly average sides enlivened only by two excellent tries by Cabango who left the cover for dead. Ulster were unfortunate to have a try ruled out for a marginal forward pass after Lowry had beaten his opposite number with neat footwork.

But Lowry was one of the few stand-out players for Ulster with McCann also prominent in the loose. Ulster’s scrum, with Wilson starting at tight head for the first time, was in trouble from the off, and the Ulster maul couldn’t impose itself. Line breaks were as rare as hen’s teeth with Cardiff’s defence well organised and Ulster having difficulty converting territory and possession into points.

Interim Head Richie Murphy will be relieved to get his first URC win under his belt after a difficult start to his tenure in South Africa. His u.20’s teams won some tight matches in their time, but none came any tighter than this. Cardiff will not be happy.

 

Lions 44 Leinster 12

Notions that Leinster’s second string are as good as most other URC teams took a bit of a knock in this match with the Lions racking up three unanswered tries in the first half and repeating the dose in the second. Leinster couldn’t match the Lions physicality, speed, and deft ball handling and struggled in every phase of the game. Turner was unfortunate to have a try ruled out – in my view the grounding was legitimate – but it was a tight call and Leinster were second best by some distance.

Leinster had another try chalked off for a marginal forward pass just after half time and then Ala’altoa – just on for Clarkson – was also pinged at the scrum. Frawley, who had been Leinster’s best player finally got the touchdown. He also got a second try, but not until after Tshituka has secured the bonus point try for the Lions. Leinster tried hard to secure at least a losers or try bonus try but just weren’t strong enough in the physical exchanges and conceded two more tries in the closing stages. No doubt the travel and altitude took its toll, but Leinster don’t make excuses.

I have long contended that Leinster tight head, Tom Clarkson isn’t a good enough scrummager for this level of play even if he can be useful in the loose. With Ala’alatoa leaving at the end of the season Leinster will be down to just one decent tighthead, Tadgh Furlong, and he will be away with Ireland for almost half the season.

Instead of pursuing marquee signings like RG Snyman and Jordie Barrett in areas of the team where they are already strong, Leinster should be addressing their chronic lack of depth at prop. They also don’t yet have a viable replacement for Healy (36) at loosehead. Leinster left 13 starters against La Rochelle at home, and were also without Keenan, Ringrose, O’Brien, Conan, and Ryan. But none of that matters I you don’t have a decent scrum and cannot win the physical exchanges.

 

Bulls 22 Munster 27

Munster were at least fully locked and loaded against the Bulls and had had the previous week-end off after their European Cup exit. But the Bulls had also kept their frontliners at home and sent a reserve team to Northampton for their European Cup Quarterfinal – much to the annoyance of the EPCR organisers. So this was going to be a real contest.

Murray hit the post with a 53 meter penalty in the thin highveld air but Munster drew first blood with some combative play resulting in a try out wide for Daly. Crowley nailed the touchline conversion for a confidence boosting 0-7 start but some powerful Bulls running led to a try for Louw.

Some great off-loading rugby, led by Snyman got Munster back on the front foot and Snyman got the try in at the end. This is the best rugby Munster have  played all season. Crowley again nails a long distance angled penalty to make it 10–17 at half-time. The key issue is whether Munster can last the full 80 minutes in the rarefied air. The pace of the match has been relentless and there will be some tired legs in the final minutes.

The Bulls looked like they were getting on top in the second half with tries by Arendse and Grobbelaar putting them 22-17 ahead. But then a clumsy head on head tackle by Goosen on Casey results in another try for the Bulls being ruled out and a red card for Goosen. It seemed a harsh sanction for a marginal contact, but Casey went off for a HIA and didn’t return, which resulted in a limping Murray having to re-take the field.

Munster got on top after that and tries by Hodnett and Murray gave them the win in a tough and tight encounter. Munster are starting to look and play like champions again and this was a very good match to win against a strong Bulls side.

 

Connacht 54 Zebra 16

Playing Zebre at home is about as easy as it gets in the URC, but Connacht and Zebre managed to serve up an entertaining match with 10 tries – 8 to Connacht giving the crowd good value. Star of the show was Connacht scrum half, Mathew Devine who showed genuine wheels to score two early tries when the match was still undecided. Only recently upgraded from an academy contract, and on his first start, Devine may well turn out to be the natural successor for Kieran Marmion Connacht have been looking for. It’s great when a new potential star appears on the horizon.

If you wanted to be picky, Connacht also conceded two soft tries and need to keep working on their defence. They have a tough run in to the regular season including three away matches against the Dragons, Munster, and Leinster and a home match against the Stormers. Currently in 9th. Place in a group of four including Ulster on 39 points, they have very little room for further error.

 

URC Round 14 review

Three wins out of four is not a bad return at this stage in the season especially with the sole loss being by a weakened Leinster against a good Lions team on the highveld in South Africa. Leinster still lead the table by a point, but a likely loss to the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday should see them knocked off their perch as second placed Glasgow are playing Zebre twice in the last four rounds. (The joys of being in a weaker group with Zebre, Benetton and Edinburgh, rather than having Munster, Ulster and Connacht in your group). However Glasgow also have to play the Bulls and Lions away, so all is not yet lost for Leinster topping the regular season table.

Munster have moved up to third in the table and the prospect of a home quarterfinal, but play a Lions team encouraged by their win against Leinster in Johannesburg next Saturday. Based on their form against the Bulls, they should be able to win that match as well. Ulster are currently in 10th. Place and play Benetton at home, Scarlets away, Leinster at home, and Munster away to round out their regular season. There’s not too much room for any more inconsistency in their performances there.

Upset of the round has to be Osprey’s win in Cape Town against the Stormers who will no doubt seek to take out their frustrations against a callow Leinster side next week-end. I didn’t see the match, but quite how the Stormers managed to lose at home to a very ordinary looking Ospreys side is beyond me. However Osprey’s are now 7th. In the table and very much in the mix for a quarter final place. Perhaps there is hope for Welsh club rugby after all.

 

Leinster Domination

Leinster dominated the news this week with the signing of Jordie Barrett, the appointment of attack coach Tyler Bleyendaal, and their move to the Aviva and Croke Park for next season while the RDS is being developed. I hope they take the opportunity to reduce ticket prices and try to fill out those venues as much as possible – it would be a great opportunity to broaden the spectator appeal of the sport. They have already sold out Croke Park for their European Cup Semi-final against Northampton. Attracting 80,000 plus spectators to a match not involving Munster is some achievement.

Nathan John’s has an article up in the Irish Times questioning whether Leinster’s dominance is good for Irish rugby. His chief bugbear is that while next season Leinster will have 10 players on Irish central contracts, the other three Irish provinces will be down to one apiece. For me the real scandal is that world class players like Sheehan, Doris, and Gibson Park are only now getting central contracts, and Lowe has yet to get one. It’s been some time since players like Henderson, Murray and Earls (now retired) were first choice for Ireland and yet they have been on central contracts for a long time.

The point of central contracts is to stop our best players from being poached by wealthy French or oligarch owned clubs and to keep them playing and available for Ireland. Leinster have developed those world class talents, and yet only get to play them perhaps 10 times in a season. All of Irish rugby is subsidized by the national team, which benefits enormously from having those players developed by and playing to one system with Leinster. The same happened when Munster were winning European cups, and there is nothing to stop Leinster losing their dominance if they don’t keep the flow of talent coming through.

That system also benefits the other provinces, with many Leinster academy graduates now playing for Ulster, Connacht and Munster. Moving established players from Leinster to the other provinces to equalise things a little has been a mixed success, with few playing as well for their new province as they did for Leinster. Carbery, Madigan, McGrath, Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore were all established internationals when they left Leinster, but didn’t exactly set the world alight after they left.  If Leinster and Irish rugby go downhill, so will the finances of the entire game in Ireland.

I do, however have very mixed feelings about the signing of Jordie Barrett on a 6 month contract from next December after which he will return to his NZ contract. It’s hard not to see this as an intelligence gathering operation with the All Blacks learning far more about Irish rugby than vice versa. Predominantly an inside centre, Leinster already have Henshaw, Ringrose, Ngatai, Osborne, and Frawley for that position and the rumour is Ngatai may now be let go – which is a pity because he is a great player with a much stronger commitment to Leinster.

Leinster are very short of test class props, particularly at tight head, so I hope this doesn’t distract them from the prime requirement to find a top class replacement for Ala’alatoa, who is also leaving at the end of the season. I appreciate the Barrett family have links to Ireland, and quality players like Jordie don’t become available very often. But this could hinder the development of Leinster’s existing players – some of whom already struggling for game time – and distract from the greatest areas of weakness in their squad, which is certainly not at 12.

 


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